Morning folks and welcome to another midweek of this weird pre-season we find ourselves in. What’s weird about it is that even though the FA Cup is still relatively fresh in the minds of most of us (despite Arsenal’s attempts to pour cold water on it through signings, redundancies, sackings at the top, etc), we have less than 10 days before our first game in the Community Shield against Liverpool Saturday after next. So the need to get things rolling in terms of player acquisitions, etc, is quite obvious. Although I doubt we’ll see too much movement before that game, I have started to see plenty of pieces written about how Arteta will line up his side tactically for the new season.
I’ve seen people suggest 4-2-3-1, I’ve seen a Pep Guardiola-style 4-3-3 mentioned, as well as the 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 (depending on how you look at it) that we saw during Project Restart. And I feel like I’m the only one who is thinking “probably all of those and more during the upcoming season”.
This is also where I get a little torn. You see as I’ve said on many occasions, I’m a fan of the old Championship Manager, then Football Manager PC games and I used to wallow away hours of my time on the family computer trying to get my team to the top of the tree. The player acquisition side of the game was fun, but it was the games and the way you set up your side tactically that I loved the most, because you were battling the computer and trying to beat the in-game algorithm by picking players with stats better than the computer and if you couldn’t do that, it would be about adapting your formation so that the computer recognises that the formation you have chosen stacks up better against the one it has chosen. That’s often why I’d pick rubbish teams down the league; it was fun to battle against the odds and see the side rise up.
So in real life when Wenger used to stick to a 4-4-2 and that didn’t work, or latterly when he went three at the back, or 4-3-3, I used to often wonder why he didn’t mix up the set up to confuse the opponents and also give us the upper hand. I used to wonder why we’d go to Chelski with the same line up and the same players. Rotation was key for me and that was because of my grounding in those computer games.
But the Emery era showed us that tinkering with styles and formations does not always work. He tinkered so much it confused the players and the result was that we ended up with one of the worst domestic starts to the season that we’ve had; certainly the worst in my lifetime since the 80s. Players were confused by his instructions, the changing in formation didn’t help, we ended up with a set of players who were far less than the sum of their parts. And i’ll admit that last season I did start to pine for the consistency in players who could build a momentum and rhythm together, which could potentially put us on the road to successive victories and climbing up the league.
I was torn because I had so wanted somebody to adapt to the opposition under Wenger, that when I got the extreme other end of the spectrum in Emery, I realised just how bad it was, because he was so afraid of the opposition it meant a complete breakdown of confidence in our own players and their ability.
Which is why so many of us have faith in Arteta. He works his team hard, but he also wants to inspire confidence. He wants the players to believe in themselves as much as they believe in him and since he has arrived you can see that their fragile belief has been slowly restored, culminating in the FA Cup win just a few short weeks ago. Then, we have his communication, which is clearer and we can all see that getting his ideas across to the players is a lot more obvious than under Emery. Arteta is so clear on what he wants to do that even simpletons like me can watch a game and see how Arsenal are setting up. We can see when Xhaka drops in to the left back role to push Saka forward; we can spot when the team is compact in the centre of the pitch to push opposition players out into wide areas, because there is less risk of conceding there; we know when Arsenal’s game plan is for the full backs to tuck in and become more narrow when we are out of possession. It is all a lot clearer and that makes us feel better as fans.
But what about the formation approach? What will he do next season?
Well, I don’t think we’re wedded to a type of style and I don’t think that Arteta will consistently use three at the back, or four, because I think he’s even said he wants players to be more comfortable with multiple set ups. Heck, we change our set up in-game, so those that are ‘on the bus’ will need to be adaptable. Which is why I can understand the reason we’re going for another centre half. It’s not just that our current ones are ‘rubbish’, it’s that Arteta wants versatile players but also those that can play in a three, as well as a four. We all know Holding and Luiz don’t look as good in a four, but against Liverpool in the Community Shield, then probably away to United in the first game (if those leaks are true), we’ll most likely adopt that. So Saliba, Luiz and Magalhaes possibly looks like it makes sense. And if you’re playing in that formation, having Coutinho – also linked at the moment – doesn’t seem to make as much sense as you’d expect the front three to be one of Auba, Willian, Lacazette and Pepe as it stands, but perhaps the game after United is a home one in which we’ll have more possession and need to break down a stubborn defence, which means having another creative player instead of that third centre half, makes more sense again.
Perhaps it wasn’t the fact that the flexible formation approach didn’t work after all. Perhaps it was just that Emery couldn’t communicate his ideas well enough in English and that’s where some of the breakdown occurred? That’s what I’d like to think was the case because it gives me hope that we can be an unpredictable and therefore dangerous team for most of our opponents in the league next season.
Just something for you to ponder on a Wednesday morning/afternoon.